Although he also pinpoints its challenges and dangers, the dean of the School of Religion at Loma Linda University has many good things to say about postmodernism. His name is Jon Paulien and Pacific Press is about to release his new book on the subject. Its title is Everlasting Gospel/Ever Changing World. Any day now it will be available at Adventist Book Centers and Internet retailers.
Loma Linda University’s religion faculty discussed this book with its dean on Sunday evening, April 13, at the home he shares with his wife Pamela and their young-adult children. The atmosphere was hospitable, the food was great, and the discussion was spirited. None of the professors gave their dean a break just because he is their “boss.” He obviously enjoyed it!
Early on in his book, Paulien writes that “In the Middle Ages (the pre-modern period) truth was thought to reside privileged groups” such as priests, bishops, popes and nobles. Secular modernism is a child of the Enlightenment in eighteenth-century Europe. It attempted to get rid of authorities, eliminate superstition, gain power over nature with scientific knowledge, and improve the world through human reason and education. It was the reigning mindset into the twentieth century; however, as its weaknesses became increasingly evident, more and more people came to think of themselves as postmodern. They felt betrayed by modernism’s inability to deliver the peaceful, steady, and cumulative progress it promised.
At this time, “a new generation looks at the god of secular modernism and proclaims it to be a false god,” Paulien writes. “In most Western countries,” he writes, “people under the age of 35-40 tend to be postmodern.” They reject meta-narratives. These are “big-picture stories that try to explain everything in the universe.” The Seventh-day Adventist theme of the Great Controversy is an example. They are suspicious of most institutions, including the church. They reject Scripture because they find it “to be filled with violence, everlasting burning hell, and the subjection of women and minorities.”
According to Paulien,
the fundamental insight of postmodernism is that the confident claims of modernism are nothing more than a historically conditioned construct, of no more value than the narrow-minded “certainties” of pre-modern or non-Western cultures. Just as “primitive” cultures were confident of their rightness due to ignorance of the larger global picture, so modernism gained its confidence by limiting the base of evidence and the hermeneutic by which it allowed evidence to be examined.
He identifies ten transitions individuals and societies experience as they shift from secular modernism to secular postmodernism:
- from confidence to suspicion
- from stability to disorientation
- from one truth to many
- from individualism to identity crisis
- from individualism to community
- from religion or no religion to spirituality
- from atomistic to wholisitic
- from exclusion to inclusion
- from knowledge to experience
- from truth-telling to storytelling
“I am convinced,” writes Paulien, “that God’s hand is behind these changes in the world and that we are heading to a place of His choosing.”
He also examines eight features of postmodernism that “have positive implications for genuine Christian faith.” One of these is its sense that all is not well, that there is “a deep need for inner healing.” Another is its “high premium on humility, honesty and authenticity in interpersonal relationships.” A third is its longing “for a clear sense of personal identity.” A fourth is its “strong need for genuine community.” A fifth is its “refreshing inclusiveness” in its attitudes “toward everyone who is foreign, out of the ordinary or just plain different.” A sixth is its greater openness “to spiritual discussions with anyone who knows God and can teach others how to know God.” A seventh is its “its ability to tolerate opposites. What is truth for you might be quite different from what is truth for me.” He sees this as more akin to the “Hebrew logic” in Scripture that “could often see contrasting ideas, not in terms of true and false, but in terms of a tension between two poles.” His final note of appreciation for postmodernism is that it favors a narrative approach to Scripture and other things. Instead of expecting the canonical texts to provide systematic summaries of doctrines, they look for patterns, plots and people.
Among many other good things in a book with thirteen stimulating chapters, Paulien distinguishes between the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth” ministries to postmodern people. The first approaches them from afar and is especially intent on preserving its own Christian integrity. The second approaches them from within and emphasizes the need to be intelligible and helpful. His own call for what he calls “radical conservatism” is an appeal to recognize the validity of both approaches and to engage in an overall strategy of following Paul’s example of “being all things to all people” in hopes of winning some.
My own conviction is that postmodernism’s greatest threat is that it often makes room for anti-modernism. It has become altogether too fashionable these days in to deride the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century in ways that play into the hands of those who have long refused to acknowledge its positive achievements. Some who have never been willing to live in secular societies use it to justify their would-be theocracies. Some who have never been willing to examine religious faith in the light of reason and public evidence use it to justify their fundamentalism. Some who have never been willing to endorse universal human rights use it to justify their tyranny. Some who have never been willing to stop proof-texting Scripture use it to justify their practice of making it say whatever they want. Some who have never been willing to concede the merits of the scientific method use it to discredit its genuine discoveries.
To each and all of these we must insist on what should be obvious: no one gets to be genuinely postmodern unless he or she has first been thoroughly modern. This is a message that we Adventists need to take especially seriously.
By recommending that many of us purchase and read Paulien’s book I run the risk of appearing to ingratiate myself to my dean. I’m happy to take this chance! This volume accomplishes its purpose, which is to provide the men and women in Adventist congregations all over the world who do not specialize in such things a more positive assessment of postmodernism than they often hear. Reading one chapter a week for the thirteen weeks of a quarter would make an excellent series of Sabbath School lessons. Go for it!
David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.